JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME, I HAVE AN AVERSION TO SUBURBS -- a strong one. I try not to make a big thing about it, and I don't want to offend anyone (learned that one the hard way!), but I do find myself going to great lengths to avoid them. Maybe it's little silly, but the notion of making a special trip to visit an art park in Saint Anthony, a first-ring suburb, left me conflicted. My internal dialogue went something like this: Will I drive through the suburbs for the sake of art, nature or some combination thereof? Of course. Will I drive to the suburbs for such a thing? That's less likely. I'm not sure why it's so, but if I'm honest, I'll only make plans to visit a suburban destination if it offers a very, very good reason to go against my inveterate urban bias. The thing is: When I actually looked around Silverwood Park, I found plenty of them.
At first glance, Silverwood looks like a typical stretch of suburban parkland: a small lake, with a charming wooden bridge connecting the shore to a tree-lined island; a winding trail through a shadowy oak forest; a stretch of restored prairie. It's a microcosm of the ecosystems writ large across the Minnesota landscape. In a word: lovely. But a haven for the art-inclined? Though it might not be immediately obvious, for those willing to invest a bit of time and energy, Silverwod does not disappoint.
Those looking for art encounters out of doors have many excellent options in town (Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), within a relatively short drive of town (Franconia Sculpture Park in Taylor's Falls) and, yes, even I'll admit the suburbs have some good spots, too (Caponi Art Park in Eagan and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, to name two). Each offers something different -- art and nature, nature in art, art in nature. But Silverwood is, perhaps, the most intentional about weaving the experience of art and nature tightly together, so that your impression of the natural landscapes of the place is bound up with the creative elements embedded within it.
"There are a lot of art parks out there, and quite a few nature centers with spaces where they show art," says Tom Moffatt, supervisor of Silverwood. "What we haven't found is a park that has set itself up with a mission of [using] fine art as a vehicle for teaching outdoor environmental concepts." To that end, the park, which opened in 2009, has a stated mission unique among the many recreational areas in the Three Rivers Park District: to serve as a regional center for nature-inspired art. But from what I see on my visit, the park's focus centers just as much on art-inspired nature; that's due, in part, to Art on Foot, a program launched last summer to add texture and context, not only to the art, but to the experience of the natural setting of the park as well.
Walk along Silverwood's main trail -- a mile-long loop that weaves through the whole range of habitats in the park -- and you'll encounter sculpture by Minnesota-based artists, each accompanied by interpretive stanchions and "cell stops;" in addition to the three-dimensional pieces, there are contributions from writers at various "poetry stops" along the trail. As the name suggests, each stop includes a phone number to call; at the other end of the line is a recording of an artist or writer, reading some stories or poems, or offering up some insight about the piece before you in the park.
"There are a lot of art parks out there, and quite a few nature centers with spaces where they show art. What we haven't found is a park that has set itself up with a mission of [using] fine art as a vehicle for teaching outdoor environmental concepts."
At the far edge of the small island behind the visitors' center, when I dial up the number on one of these "poetry stops," Tim Nolan recites his poem Meteor. "Just then, in search of the little dipper, it flashed above our heads spiking the atmosphere / a ball of hot iron that sizzled and sparked as it shot into our realm from elsewhere." As I listen to Nolan describe a campfire scene and look out across the open water of the lake, the grays and whites and browns are momentarily overlaid with dark blues and greens and blazing gold of a summer evening. A few yards away, I dial up another to hear Alexa Horochowski describe the "humor and absurdity in the act of casting a throwaway object into an industrial heavy material" behind the making of her sculpture, Iron Cooler. The combined effect of seeing and hearing about the work is visceral, a welcome rush of whimsy and wonder on a cold winter day.
The connection between the park and local artists was forged, beginning in 2010, when Alyssa Baguss joined Silverwood's administrative staff. An artist herself, she focused on introducing the park to the local arts community, and eventually partnered with mnartists.org to bring more local art work into the park's spaces. The close collaboration between the two organizations even extended to Silverwood's participation in the Walker Art Center's Open Field program last summer, when visitors to the Walker were invited to help Sean Connaughty create Oak Pod, a piece destined for installation in the park. Volunteers helped the artist train salvaged tree limbs into a rounded, twiggy exoskeleton that now hangs suspended from an oak elevated above the shore of the lake.
But Silverwood never intended to stop with adding sculpture. "I noticed there was this interpretive cell stop signage through our park, and the park district gave you information [to put there] about the geography and other natural subjects," says Baguss. "It occurred to me that these 'stops' could give us the ability to share recordings of local authors in a natural setting." Currently, the "poetry stops" feature readings by Nolan, Gary Dop, Hillary Wentworth, Connie Wanek, Brian Beatty and Lightsey Darst. Moffatt says the poetry and information stops have proved to be a great success, with around 850 calls made between the beginning of August and the end of September -- a number, he says, which surpasses the tally of all the calls made to access other such "cell stops" in the Three Rivers Park District combined.
Walking back along the path, out of the woods, I'm a little haunted by Lightsey Darst's "killing forest." I wander back past Connaughty's suspended pod, past the bench by the lake where Connie Wanek's poem evokes lovers at the mercy of ravens, but before the bridge that takes you to the island where Horochowski's cast-iron homage to a throwaway ice cooler lives in the imagination alongside Nolan's elemental words -- wind and meteors and fire. I find an odd sort of structure that draws my eye; Alonso Sierralta's Casa del Carbonero nestles along the lake shore, off the path. Inspired by the traditional dwellings used by Chilean charcoal workers, the artist created the work with a combination of industrial and organic materials found on-site. Sierralta describes the structure as a "visual representation of transplantation using organic forms," something that both belongs (the found materials used to make the structure) and does not belong (a Chilean charcoal workers dwelling), coming together into something unique to this place and this moment -- like an immigrant, like himself. And it occurs to me, as I stand there looking at Sierralta's work, that this synthesis, this interplay of nature and art, of time and timelessness, of lived experience and open-air imagination, is precisely what makes Silverwood special.
About the author: Stephanie Xenos writes on arts and culture topics for a variety of regional publications.